She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
Oddom Van Syvorn (born 1962) is a Cambodian woman who has dedicated her life to promoting peace and non-violence through the annual peace walk to war-ravaged areas in Cambodia. She joined the first Dhammayietra, which literally means walking with dharma, in 1992 and has coordinated the pilgrimage since 1999. In her work, she teaches Buddhist precepts to the young, blesses and plants trees to raise awareness about environmental preservation and promotes compassion for people living with HIV/Aids.
She says: “The Dhammayietra is not waiting for the next war to begin but comes to spread information everywhere and to call all to a change of heart, a Khmer heart, a soft, kind, gentle heart”.
She says also: “Before the war, my father wanted us to leave for Thailand, his motherland. He said we will face difficulties in this country (Cambodia) when communists come. My mother refused to leave. They lived separately for three months before they reunited. I remember my father said ‘I would die without you seeing the smoke” (not having a funeral rite).
Oddom Van Syvorn – Cambodia
She works for the Dhammayietra Center for Peace and Non-violence.
Oddom Van Syvorn, a small, quiet and humble Cambodian woman is an engaged Buddhist. She practices dharma in her daily life. She dresses simply – a long-sleeved plain shirt and a sarong. Her offices are temples, schools, and prisons. The soft-spoken Syvorn can be seen negotiating bad roads, pedaling her way to the villages to teach villagers about meditation. At other times, she meditates with older traditional midwives, visits the sick in her community, and plants trees to raise awareness about the environment.
But Syvorn is not an ordinary woman.
Underneath her smiling face and soft voice is a determined woman who won’t allow any hurdle to get in the way of her quest for peace. In contrast to her humility, Syvorn is fearless in her encounters with powerful figures when she seeks explanations for the delays in the approval of her requests to hold a peace walk.
In the words of one of her admirers, Syvorn is a woman of compassion who tries to ease the sufferings she sees with the wisdom that comes from her own life’s experience. Like many Cambodians, Syvorn has known war and has suffered from its consequences since she was very young.
Syvorn is the second of three children. Her father, a Thai, worked as a Thai language teacher in Cambodia. He later served as a military officer in the governments of Sihanouk and Lon Nol. When the Khmer Rouge’s black-shirt army marched into Phnom Penh in April 1975 and took power, Syvorn’s father was arrested and disappeared. The family never heard from him again.
In 1976 Syvorn, her mother and her younger sister were captured and were to be taken to the local killing fields. But the truck had two flat tires and with the aid of a man she is forever grateful to, they were able to escape. When she looked for him later, she learned that he had been killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Under the brutal rules of the Khmer Rouge, Syvorn had to stop her formal education of five-years. She learned to cope with hunger through breathing exercises. It was called mediation, she learned later.
Her suffering, like the suffering of millions of Cambodians, was deep. But it introduced her to the Dhammayietra peace walk, which was initiated by the Venerable Maha Ghosananda in 1992. “When I heard of the Dhammayietra, I was very interested to find out what it was all about,” says Syvorn. The peace walk completely changed her life.
Buddha taught that suffering teaches compassion.
Syvorn dedicated herself to alleviating the sufferings of others. She has been joining the peace walk ever since. She also gave up her small merchandising business to dedicate herself fully to peace and Buddhist teaching. “It’s easy to make money. But it is not easy to fully adhere to religion,” she says.
When the Venerable Maha Ghosananda’s failing health prevented him from leading the march in 2000, Syvorn took over, leading the annual peace walk ever since. The Dhammayietra and Syvorn are almost synonymous to each other. A major responsibility is to write letters seeking approval for the walk from authorities.
It is not easy, as she has found out.“Our letters disappeared sometimes and I had to confront the ministers involved”. Syvorn also has to overcome budget shortages. On average, the peace walk needs from US$6,000 to about US$10,500.There was time when she had only US$200 for all the expenses of the walk. However, she and her team managed to get the additional funds on time.
A peaceful mind is what Syvorn herself needs as the XV Dhammayietra approaches. This year’s walk took 21 days covering 257 kilometers from Pursat province to Kampong Chhnang province. It aims to promote compassion, loving kindness, generosity, honesty and tolerance. The pilgrimage also aims to increase awareness of preserving natural resources, promote HIV/Aids prevention and love and compassion for people living with HIV/Aids.
The Dhammayietra peace walk is usually undertaken sometime during the months of February to May. The organizing committee decides on the objectives. Syvorn and her team have to prepare two to three months prior to the event, conducting awareness raising activities to invite possible participants, putting together all education materials, gathering the food, raising funds, collecting medicines and putting together all other needed logistics.
A week before the actual walk, participants attend a pre-walk training workshop where all the details are discussed. There are rules and regulations that they must follow. Foremost among these are: being neutral and apolitical, supporting active non-violence, practicing loving kindness, honesty and tolerance, no carrying of deadly weapons or explosives, being healthy enough to have the stamina to walk an average of 10 to 15 kilometers per day for 20-40 days, and not doing anything that would negatively affect the beliefs, traditions and culture of the communities that the walk would go through. Walkers are prohibited from taking money along the route or using any political logo and symbol in the walk.
The peace walkers chant and meditate daily starting at 4 AM. Along the route of the Dhammayietra, monks perform water blessings for the people and the walkers distribute leaflets and books concerning Buddhism’s five precepts (to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies, and taking intoxicants), care of the environment, and knowledge about HIV/AIDS. There are also the blessing and ordination of trees in some temples, schools, villages, communes and provinces that the walk will pass through. Trees are planted in every wat the Dhammayietra rests in.
Every evening, there is a sermon from the Dhammayietra monks for the local population and lay people, about the walk and the five Buddhist precepts, the preservation and conservation of the environment, and awareness raising about HIV/AIDS. Leaflets and books are distributed to the people and a video showing on various topics in the temple where the walkers sleep. Every two days, the Dhammayietra walkers participate in study classes about conflict mediation, conflict resolution facilitation skills and meditation.
Altogether, the previous marches have covered over 5,000 kilometers, passing through almost all provinces of Cambodia. In the earlier years of the pilgrimage, the walks were sometime caught in the crossfire, causing death among peace walkers. Re-routing is common in most walks, and road conditions and bad weather sometimes prevent further walking. The number of participants has ranged from 150 to 700. The numbers at the end of the walk could decline or swell depending on the social and political context of each peace walk, as well as the condition of the peace walkers. Foreigners had participated in some marches.
In 1997 on a trip in Thailand, SyVorn was deeply touched by the suffering caused by HIV/AIDS in children and adults. She met Thai monks who were committed to easing the suffering.
“At that time, I knew that Cambodia would have many people dying of Aids in the future. I didn’t have any health training so I could not help on that level but I could begin to teach the youth about the five precepts to prevent HIV/Aids from being a big problem,” she explains.
Syvorn carries themes of the Dhammayietra in her daily work. She teaches meditation and the Buddhist five precepts to students, older nuns in the temples, midwives and traditional birth attendants, among others. She planted trees in schools to teach the youth the importance of the environment. Preferring to keep a low profile, Syvorn’s work might be quiet. However, relief workers and peace advocates believe that the impact of the peace walks and the role that she plays are very deep, extensive, decisive and impressive.
Syvorn’s vision for the Dhammayietra is to walk on and carry its message of the five precepts to the youth in the countryside. “When I teach old people they cannot remember. If we teach the young, they will carry the message further,” she explains.
“She lives by her daily example the words of the Venerable Maha Ghosananda: ‘Peace begins in one’s heart, then in one’s family, then in one’s community and then throughout the world’. She is one in ten million and the world needs more people like her. It is because of her that I believe Cambodia has a better future,” says Mary Dunbar, senior officer of the Project for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH).
Perhaps the peace walk has now started to bear fruit in a country where the levels of trust at the political and community levels are low, and where people assess political or group affiliations before speaking openly to each other. Syvorn says in some villages, parents have become more open to their children marrying people coming from a different political and ideological background. She has also seen fewer cases of domestic violence and fighting among villagers.
“People believe that when the Dhammayietra comes, it brings peace.
They are no longer afraid of war. Some even say when the peace walk comes, it brings the rains so they can farm. When the peace walk comes, all violence ceases. They call all of the men who beat their wives, anyone who has committed violence, to come forward for the water blessing from the monks in order to stop the violence,” she says.
The annual Dhammayietra peace walk is supported by individuals and international non-governmental organizations. “If there were enough funding, we would walk all year round. Or when crucial events happen, we want to organize a walk as well,” Syvorn says. (1000peacewomen).
The Dhammayietra is an annual peace walk in Cambodia that originated at the historic repatriation of refugees in the Thai border camps at the U.N.-monitored transition to democracy in 1992. It situates itself within the discourse and practice of “socially engaged Buddhism” that has gained visibility in Asia and American Buddhism during the last two decades. As Cambodia’s particular form of socially engaged Buddhism is marked by refugee return, I will argue that the Dhammayietra’s revival of Buddhism in postsocialist Cambodia is only possible because of its transnational formation. Represented as a quintessential Khmer Buddhist response to Cambodia’s entrenched conflicts, the networks forged beyond the border of Cambodia have been instrumental in fashioning the face of the Dhammayietra. Though it forges its discursive identity vis a vis the “local” space of the nation, this local space is mobile. Maha Ghosananda’s instruction to move “step by step” toward peace reappropriates dangerous mobility—the massive relocations during the Khmer Rouge era, refugee flight, the danger of treading on land fed with mines—and turns walking into a religious act. It is this discursive “move” that loosens the Dhammayietra’s ties to the nation and allows it to slip across political and religious borders and ally itself with a diverse network of interfaith peace groups that are its transnational public forum. (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion).
Though a formal peace treaty was signed in 1991, conflict in Cambodia continued and the Cambodian people continued to suffer. In 1992, a number of local and foreign peace activists initiated the first Dhammayietra peace walk—literally, a “Pilgrimage of Truth.” It has taken place around the time of the Cambodian New Year ever since. Villagers along the way see the walk and the gradual return of Buddhism and Buddhist monks as a sign that peace is real, despite the continued hardships that are a result of the war. (Step by Step on the Way to Peace, the Dhammayietra Peace Walk in Cambodia).
Dhamma Yietra: center for peace and non violence in Cambodia, peacemakers walking for communities with AIDS;
Religion and Peacebuilding in Cambodia: A Bibliography;
Dhammayietra: Pilgrimages of Truth in Cambodia;
DECLARATION ON THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN THE PROMOTION OF A CULTURE OF PEACE.